Whether you are moving to Colorado or hiking a to mountain peak over 10,000 feet, you may be wondering if your dog can get altitude sickness.
I became curious about this a few years ago when I was planning a road trip to Colorado with my small dogs.
Article originally publishes August 2015
We planned to stay in Denver, Leadville, and several other high elevation towns. We also planned to hike Mount Elbert – the highest peak in Colorado and the highest peak in the “lower 48” (US) that dogs are allowed on.
Denver, often referred to as the mile-high city, is 5,280 feet above sea level. Leadville sits at 10,000 feet and Mount Elbert tops out at 14,439 feet.
All three of these destinations area above the elevation threshold were altitude sickness can occur. I thought we were especially high risk because the City we live in is barely over 500 feet above sea level.
My pre-trip research revealed that, yes, dogs can indeed bet altitude sickness. before we left.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness is something that happens to dogs and people when they move to a higher elevation too quickly.
Air at higher elevations contains less oxygen (has a lower oxygen pressure). A body can experience physical distress while it’s trying to adjust to this.
This distress can manifest in several ways and can be classified into three main types by symptoms.
Altitude sickness is cased by the lack of oxygen at high elevations
The milder of the three is called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or simply “mountain sickness”. It’s the most common and what people typically think of when referring to altitude sickness.
The other two types, which are much more serious, are characterized by fluid buildup in the lungs (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE) or fluid buildup of fluid in the brain (High Altitude Cerebral Edema or HACE).
The first one makes a dog or person feel horrible but it can be treated “at home” in most cases. The latter two conditions are life threatening and medical attention is imperative.
When Can a Dog Get Altitude Sickness?
People sometimes get altitude sickness when they reach an elevation of 8,000 feet or higher. It’s expected it is the same for dogs (they can’t tell us for sure).
Just as not every person develops altitude sickness, neither does every dog. In fact, dogs are less susceptible to it than humans.
Dogs that are more susceptible to altitude sickness include:
Some dogs are more susceptible to altitude sickness than others
- Dogs underlying medical conditions, especially ones affecting the lungs and the ability of their hear to pump oxygenated blood
- Brachycephalic dogs such as boxers, bulldogs and pugs are more susceptible to altitude sickness too
- Senior Dogs
Altitude Sickness in Small Dogs
I wondered if the likelihood of altitude sickness could increase the smaller the dog is.
My thinking is that a smaller body might have a harder time adjusting or breathing in enough oxygen.
Honestly, I couldn’t find any information about altitude sickness specifically as it applies to small dogs or a reduced body mass.
However, I suspect the answer would be related to the difference between adult humans and children so I researched that.
This study found that, “… children are no more likely to develop acute mountain sickness than adults.”
I also did a little digging into altitude sickness for smaller mammals like rats. Nothing I found indicated that smaller animals are more susceptible to altitude sickness than larger ones.
Therefore, I assume that both large and small dog can develop altitude sickness, or not, at the same rate.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness in Dogs
Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us when they feel bad and will often push themselves to please us.
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness so you can recognize when your pup may be in trouble.
The symptoms can vary but include:
- Hyperventilation/excessive panting
- Excessive drooling
- Dry Cough
- Pale gums
- Increased pulse
- Swelling of feet and possibly the face
- Dizziness and lack of coordination
- Lethargy and refusal to move
- Headache (not usually a visible sign in dogs but their head can hurt)
- Bleeding from the nose and retina (only in extreme cases)
A dog experiencing altitude sickness will usually exhibit several of these symptoms at once
Preparing a Dog for High Altitude
To prepare, it’s best if you can stay for several days to weeks at higher elevation than normal for your dog but below the 8,000 feet threshold. This will help your dog acclimate to a higher elevation.
I know is not always realistic if you are on a quick trip though.
Other things you can do to prevent altitude sickness in your dog are:
- Increase your dog’s fitness, and ability for their body to update oxygen, by starting with lower elevation hikes and gradually increasing to harder, higher trails.
- Hike at a slower pace to make the ascent more gradual
- Make sure that your dog is drinking enough water
- Add flavored electrolytes for dogs to their water to entice them to drink and maintain optimal athletic performance
Prevention is the best medicine but it’s not a guarantee that your dog won’t get altitude sickness
What to Do if Your Dog Shows Signs of Altitude Sickness
If your dog is showing signs of altitude sickness, you should:
- Immediately descend to a lower elevation, ideally below 8,000 feet
- Give them plenty of water to rehydrate (you might have to pour it down their throat using a syringe from your first aid kit)
- Rest until their behavior and respiration/heartbeat returns to normal
Most dogs recover well after treatment and returning to their normal altitude.
If something still seems off after you do the above, get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. There may be something else going on.
Our Experience Hiking the Highest Mountain in Colorado with Dogs
We had been in Colorado for a couple of days, but at a lower elevation than Leadville, when we attempted to hike Mt. Sherman (14,035 feet at the top).
Right away, Chester was hiking super slow. We chalked it up to his old age and put him in my backpack.
Gretel wanted to charge to the top as usual so we let her hike.
The person that definitely got altitude sickness was me. I got a headache, became weaker, and felt nautious.
I recognized the signs so we decided to turn back and rest for a few days.
We took it easy around town the next couple of days. Everyone told me that drinking lots and lots of water – “so much that you are drowning” to be exact – would help so I made sure to hydrate as much as I could.
I tried taking my severe headache medicine but it wasn’t helping. So I did what you do and took to Mr. Google to see if something else would help. It turns out that plain ol’ ibuprofen can help with altitude sickness.
We used the down time to see more of Colorado, including the Maroon Bells, Aspen, and Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway.
The increase in altitude sickness wasn’t an issue for my small dogs but I sure felt it
After resting for a few days, and driving to Leadville, CO at 10,000 feet above sea level to further acclimate, we were all feeling pretty good.
On our last day in Leadville before heading home, we attempted the Mt. Elbert hike.
My Dachshunds Chester and Gretel appeared unphased by the hike. So did my hubby. However, I started feeling sick again near the top.
I insisted that he go ahead to the top with the dogs since they were clearly capable of making it.
After taking about 15 minutes to hike the last couple hundred feet, and swearing I was going to stop every labored step, I arrived at the Summit!